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|Back to Home > Content > Interviews > So What Do You Do, Will Connors, International Correspondent?|
Will was The New York Times' de facto Ethiopia correspondent at the time and the paper's only reporter on the ground there. This despite the fact that he's 25 years old. After graduating college, he decided the action was on Horn of Africa, and set out to find it, landing in Ethiopia, learning the local language (Amharic, native only to the Christian population there), and working his way up through the local papers before getting one tiny break from the Times. It struck me that he fulfilled the dream so many journalists have of being foreign correspondents, and he had done it without suffering the tedium of rising through a paper's ranks. Shortly after my visit, the dream turned into a nightmare when the government cracked down on "dissidents," including journalists, forcing Connors to flee the country. (Our Q&A was conducted via email from his temporary quarters in Nairobi.) Now he's on the road, stringing for the Times from Congo and next from either Nigeria or Indonesia. Magazine editors looking for their own foreign correspondent should get in touch.
Once you were on the ground in Ethiopia, how did you set out to be a journalist? Did you hook up with the local papers or the NGOs first? How did you make ends meet in the early going? How did you make contacts? What was the media scene in Addis like?
I hadn't planned to become a journalist, although I think the impulse had always been in the back of mind somewhere. Almost unconsciously, as soon as I touched down in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, I began looking for jobs at local English-language papers. I quickly found a gig as a copy editor at a very small regional paper, then with a lifestyle magazine.
|I'll admit it. I was taking a nap when The New York Times called me for the first time.|
I arrived in 2005, immediately after contentious elections and during continued post-election violence, so a bunch of local newspapers had been shut down and their editors arrested. It was not a great time for the free press in Ethiopia, but the paper I started at had a pretty good reputation for remaining independent. I got into the shit a month after my arrival. A colleague and I were detained for shooting pictures of government soldiers beating some kids, and though we were only held for about 12 hours, it was still freaky. Plus I felt like a total ass for getting my colleague, an Ethiopian, beaten up. Typical na�ve American stuff.
I did a bunch of other writing and editing jobs for the next year, most notably for the BBC and an online paper called the Middle East Times. To pay the bills I also wrote two books for the NGO Save the Children, which I was hesitant about at first due to some of my own personal reservations about NGOs. But the gig afforded me the opportunity to travel extensively in rural Ethiopia and really get to know the country and the people better. I got to sleep on tanned cow-hide mats outside, under the stars, with the friendliest and hardiest peoples. It was an amazing, humbling experience.
How did you first make contact with The New York Times, and how did you cultivate that relationship to the point where you were writing features for the paper? What is your relationship with Jeffrey Gettleman like?
I'll admit it. I was taking a nap when The New York Times called me for the first time. I panicked when finally I answered and ran outside in my boxers to get better cell phone reception. The neighbors were not amused. The Times correspondent in Nairobi wanted me to do some work on the ground on an American citizen who was being held in a secret prison in Ethiopia. That was my first big break, and I did a good job, so they were willing to use me again. It was a good thing they couldn't see me napping and drooling on myself over the phone.
The downside of working the Times, of course, is the negative attention it must bring in countries unfriendly to the press. What were the chain of events that forced you to leave Ethiopia?
Did you ever feel your life was in danger?
What I feared for most was not my own safety but that of the Ethiopians who knew me and worked with me on various stories. Any Ethiopian seen with me would be questioned, and sometimes much worse. Even my roommate, who is Ethiopian and works for the post office, was interrogated, threatened, and followed for weeks after I left. He and most others did not have the luxury to flee.
What are your plans from here? Are you hoping to work full-time for the Times? Where are you headed next?
The Times has been great to me, giving me chances to get my own pieces in the paper and continue working. I'm headed for either Nigeria or Indonesia, or both, next, to continue freelancing. Hopefully a full-time gig with a paper or magazine will happen soon.
What advice would you give to journalists hoping to become foreign correspondents (or even work overseas)?
I'm still relatively green, but if I had to give advice to aspiring journalists I guess it would be this: If you're restless or don't want to work for years getting coffee for editors, and want to work abroad, then just go. In a strange, new place, you'll be forced to figure it out quickly. Oh, and if you're in a foreign country and your local colleague tells you not to take anymore pictures of soldiers, listen to him!
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
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